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Under Which Lyre

W.H. Auden


(Phi Beta Kappa Poem, Harvard, 1946) Ares at last has quit the field, The bloodstains on the bushes yield To seeping showers, And in their convalescent state The fractured towns associate With summer flowers. Encamped upon the college plain Raw veterans already train As freshman forces; Instructors with sarcastic tongue Shepherd the battle-weary young Through basic courses. Among bewildering appliances For mastering the arts and sciences They stroll or run, And nerves that steeled themselves to slaughter Are shot to pieces by the shorter Poems of Donne. Professors back from secret missions Resume their proper eruditions, Though some regret it; They liked their dictaphones a lot, T hey met some big wheels, and do not Let you forget it. But Zeus' inscrutable decree Permits the will-to-disagree To be pandemic, Ordains that vaudeville shall preach And every commencement speech Be a polemic. Let Ares doze, that other war Is instantly declared once more 'Twixt those who follow Precocious Hermes all the way And those who without qualms obey Pompous Apollo. Brutal like all Olympic games, Though fought with smiles and Christian names And less dramatic, This dialectic strife between The civil gods is just as mean, And more fanatic. What high immortals do in mirth Is life and death on Middle Earth; Their a-historic Antipathy forever gripes All ages and somatic types, The sophomoric Who face the future's darkest hints With giggles or with prairie squints As stout as Cortez, And those who like myself turn pale As we approach with ragged sail The fattening forties. The sons of Hermes love to play And only do their best when they Are told they oughtn't; Apollo's children never shrink From boring jobs but have to think Their work important. Related by antithesis, A compromise between us is Impossible; Respect perhaps but friendship never: Falstaff the fool confronts forever The prig Prince Hal. If he would leave the self alone, Apollo's welcome to the throne, Fasces and falcons; He loves to rule, has always done it; The earth would soon, did Hermes run it, Be like the Balkans. But jealous of our god of dreams, His common-sense in secret schemes To rule the heart; Unable to invent the lyre, Creates with simulated fire Official art. And when he occupies a college, Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge; He pays particular Attention to Commercial Thought, Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport, In his curricula. Athletic, extrovert and crude, For him, to work in solitude Is the offence, The goal a populous Nirvana: His shield bears this device: Mens sana Qui mal y pense. Today his arms, we must confess, From Right to Left have met success, His banners wave From Yale to Princeton, and the news From Broadway to the Book Reviews Is very grave. His radio Homers all day long In over-Whitmanated song That does not scan, With adjectives laid end to end, Extol the doughnut and commend The Common Man. His, too, each homely lyric thing On sport or spousal love or spring Or dogs or dusters, Invented by some court-house bard For recitation by the yard In filibusters. To him ascend the prize orations And sets of fugal variations On some folk-ballad, While dietitians sacrifice A glass of prune-juice or a nice Marsh-mallow salad. Charged with his compound of sensational Sex plus some undenominational Religious matter, Enormous novels by co-eds Rain down on our defenceless heads Till our teeth chatter. In fake Hermetic uniforms Behind our battle-line, in swarms That keep alighting, His existentialists declare That they are in complete despair, Yet go on writing. No matter; He shall be defied; White Aphrodite is on our side: What though his threat To organize us grow more critical? Zeus willing, we, the unpolitical, Shall beat him yet. Lone scholars, sniping from the walls Of learned periodicals, Our facts defend, Our intellectual marines, Landing in little magazines Capture a trend. By night our student Underground At cocktail parties whisper round From ear to ear; Fat figures in the public eye Collapse next morning, ambushed by Some witty sneer. In our morale must lie our strength: So, that we may behold at length Routed Apollo's Battalions melt away like fog, Keep well the Hermetic Decalogue, Which runs as follows:-- Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases, Thou shalt not write thy doctor's thesis On education, Thou shalt not worship projects nor Shalt thou or thine bow down before Administration. Thou shalt not answer questionnaires Or quizzes upon World-Affairs, Nor with compliance Take any test. Thou shalt not sit With statisticians nor commit A social science. Thou shalt not be on friendly terms With guys in advertising firms, Nor speak with such As read the Bible for its prose, Nor, above all, make love to those Who wash too much. Thou shalt not live within thy means Nor on plain water and raw greens. If thou must choose Between the chances, choose the odd; Read The New Yorker, trust in God; And take short views.

Added: 13 Feb 2002 | Last Read: 13 Dec 2018 2:40 PM | Viewed: 13949 times

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